Bob Atherton, NPM

Making Readers of Offenders

Having worked in the non-profit sector for more than 30 years, primarily in special education, Bob Atherton had the idea to start a non-profit in St. Albans, Vermont, aimed at providing literacy classes for people recently released from prison. Volunteering on a reparative justice board with the St. Albans Community Justice Center, Bob noticed that many of people that came before the board, offenders who came either as referrals from probation and parole, or directly from the courts, had problems with literacy. “They were,” Bob notes, “for all intents and purposes, functionally illiterate.” 

Along with others at the community justice center, Bob was struck by how hard it was for the offenders that came before the reparative justice board to get back on their feet. “There didn’t seem to be a way to break out of that cycle, in terms of getting out of that sub-minimum wage, cash under the table, no income, barely able to support themselves and their families.” So Bob and several colleagues with education backgrounds decided that it would be great to meet some of those needs through providing educational and community support for these people.

While setting up his business model, Bob came across an advertisement for the Marlboro Certificate in Non-Profit Management program. Though he had been working in nonprofits for many years, he was interested in becoming better acquainted with the nuts and bolts of running one. The class was a perfect fit for him. “We were all pretty much at the entry level in the nonprofit world. We worked hard together, it was a great experience and it really gave me the shot in the arm to get out there and plug along.”

Bob feels as though he learned a lot of valuable information that he is putting directly to use with his new nonprofit, called Read, Write, Communicate…Succeed! “The overall theme that everybody had was to be patient, and also to be realistic, to not get carried away by the mission. You can easily burn out in a couple years doing this. You’ve just done nothing else but this, 24 hours a day, and you can’t do that in the long haul—there’s got to be a balance, and everybody was pretty good about that.”

The certificate program provided Bob with a large collection of tools to help him in the operational side of his business, allowing him to get his program up and functioning, while staying true to his mission. “I started off with my first client in February, a referral from the mediation program at the community justice center, and I’m now up to 13 participants. I meet with them various times a week, depending on what their needs are. It’s gone extremely well.”